Technological fluency, not just computer literacy

21st century skills learning producers and consumers stem technological literacy Apr 08, 2024
Hand poised over keyboard with colorful icons

I graduated high school in 1988, and personal computers were only just beginning to invade our homes. Phones still had cords that tethered them to the wall, and many had rotary dials instead of push buttons. A digital watch was the height of mobile technology, particularly if it had alarms, could keep time in multiple time zones, or sported a mini calculator. 

My generation was on the leading edge of the transition from a world where computers were used only for specialized purposes to one where they have become a ubiquitous part of everyday life. As such, it was important that people in that time learned how to use computers to help with routine tasks. It was less important that they knew much about how they worked. Knowing how to use a word processor or a spreadsheet provided an advantage over others who did not have those skills.

It is no longer 1988, however, and computers are everywhere. In a 2019 study, researchers found that more than 50% of children in the United States have their own smartphones by the time they are 11 years old, and over 80% of teenagers have them. They know how to use them, too. I've seen kids record a video, edit it, and publish it to YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, or some other social media platform using only their cell phones. Today, typewriters and calculators have been rendered almost obsolete, and being able to use a word processor, spreadsheet, and email client (which didn't really exist outside of academia in 1988!) is a life skill, not a competitive advantage.

Marina Bers describes this as the difference between being computer literate and technologically fluent. She explains that computer literacy is the ability to use a computer and the programs running on it to accomplish specific tasks. Technological fluency, though, is the ability to use a computer "in a creative and personally meaningful way" in the same way that someone fluent in a foreign language can communicate "effortlessly and smoothly."  

In virtually all facets of life, there are producers and there are consumers.  Producers make things for consumers to use.  Generally, producers have control over the availability of and access to certain resources.  They get to make the decisions about what to offer to their customers - the consumers.  For example, General Motors decides what cars they will make, how many they will make, how much they will cost, what colors they will offer, which ones will be gas and which will be electric, etc.

Consumers generally have to accept whatever is offered by the producers, or they can choose to do without that particular product or service.  If you don’t like the cars GM is offering this year, you might find another dealer, look for a used car from a prior year, or keep your current car.  Further, consumers are often ill-equipped to evaluate what is offered.  Without sparking a heated argument over gas vs electric, can we agree that a complete understanding of this issue would require extensive research?  Instead, consumers tend to form their opinions on any such matter using information provided by the producers.  Of course, the producers want you to choose their product, so the information will most likely be slanted in their favor.

As we work to provide STEM education opportunities, we must strive to create technological fluency where students become technology producers, not simple computer literacy where they are only consumers. Students need to understand how technology works, not just how to use it.  One who knows only how to use computers to do things others have made possible will always be dependent, while those who grasp the inner workings will be able to extend that which exists and innovate to create that which will be needed.

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